arbitrary associations vs coherent conclusions: a study with a split personality

Review time!

Here’s the next instalment in my essay-by-essay review of Kleinplatz and Moser’s Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures. For those who might actually have the book and be checking this against the table of contents (and please, if there are any of you so geeky as to be doing that, please tell me and I will totally kiss you), I’m skipping Weinberg’s article, which reviews the past few decades of literature on SM… not that it isn’t interesting, but by its nature as a literary review it doesn’t exactly present much that’s new and exciting. Weinberg does a capable job summarizing the way things were up until now, i.e. up until this book. Very good for those seeking an overall idea of academic/clinical work on the topic of BDSM.

Nope, I’m fast-forwarding one track to an article entitled “Differences and Similarities Between Gay and Straight Individuals Involved in the Sadomasochistic Subculture,” by Niklas Nording, N. Kenneth Sandnabba, Pekka Santtila and Laurence Alison – a contingent of Finnish PhDs in a variety of fields (except for Nording, who is an MPsych and PhD candidate). Basically, they surveyed a couple hundred SMers about their sexual and BDSM practices, demographic information and sexual history.

It’s not bad, I suppose. At the very least it doesn’t come to any conclusions that feel completely off the mark or “dangerous” in the political sense – in other words, when experts say something completely stupid, they’re still seen as experts, so people who aren’t educated enough about BDSM to see the stupidity still believe ‘em, and that sucks. The ways the authors express their conclusions is a little weird at times, but luckily there’s not too much in the way of ignorant political statements here. 

That being said, the paper has a number of flaws, in my humble critical opinion.

First of all, it’s not actually a review of the differences between gay and straight individuals; it’s a review of the differences between gay and straight men. They had a sample of 162 men and 22 women. They explain that they sent an 18-page questionnaire to two clubs, and later they further explain, “The MSC Finland association was mainly open for gay male individuals while the Kinky Club attracted mainly straight males and females leading possibly to an underrepresentation of lesbian sadomasochists.”

Hmmm. Yup, that would indeed lead your numbers astray. If you only use two sources to find your respondents, and one of them is exclusively for gay men, then you’re pretty much guaranteed a lot of gay men in your study. And if the other source is primarily heterosexual, then it’s fairly likely that more or less 50% of your respondents from there will be male and the remainder female, and that very few of those females will be lesbians. So for starters you’re limiting your number of female participants from the get-go. (In this case, in terms of straight respondents, it was more like 75% men and 25% women – I’d love to know why that skew existed.) And if you don’t ask any lesbian groups to participate to round it all out, well, you likely won’t hear much about lesbian sadomasochists. Wheee! Self-fulfilling prophecy. Although they openly admit this flaw, and don’t try to make any gross generalizations about their absent and near-absent female populations, it definitely bugs me that they still wrote and titled the paper as though it could encompass straight vs lesbian SM tendencies, instead of just pulling the female sample entirely and making it a study of male SMers.

Next up, they used a really odd method of categorizing types of SM play. Specifically:

“Using a multidimensional scaling analysis, it was possible to identify four separate sexual themes which in the Alison et al. (2001) article were labeled: hypermasculinity; administration and receiving of pain; physical restriction and psychological humiliation.”

Now, I get that it’s helpful to have categories when analyzing things, but these ones seem awfully arbitrary to me. For example, I’ve never known anyone to enter into SM play and call it “hypermasculinity.” And I have no idea how the researchers decided what behaviours counted in this category. Their list: “rimming, watersports, cockbinding, fistfucking, scatologia and the use of dildos, enemas and catheters.”

Huh? Nobody told me that when I fist a girl, I’m engaged in a hypermasculine type of SM. And I think it would come as a rather surprising piece of news for your average prodomme to be told that when she pisses or shits on one of her clients, it’s hypermasculine somehow. And I will certainly have to inform my very femme male friend P, who’s a big fan of the medical play, that when he catheterizes himself of a play partner (almost exclusively female and femme), he’s actually playing with hypermasculinity. Dildos? Okay, maybe – certainly I often have strong masculine associations with dildos – but I know lots of folks for whom the use of dildos is completely unrelated to anything masculine. Sometimes a dildo is just a conveniently shaped item for reaching happy places inside an orifice, rather than being the silicone embodiment of a masculine identity or headspace.

Perhaps this is my non-existent lesbian perspective though. Hm. Maybe gay guys really do feel hypermasculine when they fist-fuck or catheterize each other. I just fail to see a) where the associations of these specific sorts of play with hypermasculinity come from and b) how the extrapolation works beyond gay male play. Really, this is very confusing to me.

Then we move on to the other three categories. Pain play? Not so complicated. Physical restriction either. But that last one – “psychological humiliation” – is a little odd, again. First of all, I think it’s weird that they would toss around the word “humiliation.” I wonder if they asked the respondents to indicate whether or not they felt humiliated or felt they were humiliating their partners when engaging in specific types of play, or if they just arbitrarily decided that’s what was happening. There are so many different sorts of intense psychological states that one can enter when doing SM play – I’m really not sure why “humiliation” deserves a category of its own in a four-point list.

And when you look at the list of types of play that apparently fall under the category of “humiliation,” it gets all the more confusing. The list: “faceslapping, flagellation, the use of a gag, the use of knives and razors and verbal humiliation.”

So let me get this straight. Flagellation is a form of humiliation play? Ummm… where the heck did they get that idea? I’ve never heard of any other work associating these things. And certainly, in my many years in the BDSM world, I’ve never met anyone who would automatically chalk up a flogging to a desire for humiliation. In fact, flogging, in my humble opinion, is one of the single most versatile types of play you can imagine – it can be about pain, or not; it can be about punishment, or reward, or neither; it can be a mark of ownership or a mark of service or neither; it can be sexy, or completely non-sexual; it can be soft and gentle or nasty and challenging; and so on, and so forth. I’m a great lover of the flogging, myself, but for me, receiving a good flogging is basically the equivalent of a really purringly happy deep-tissue massage. It rarely turns me on sexually, and there’s not really much psychology to it at all; it just feels good to the body. So… humiliating?! Ah, not exactly. And when I give a flogging, it’s all over the map – I’ve used floggers for the purpose of sensual arousal, intense torture, gentle warm-up, skin-breaking intensity… so many possibilities with a single toy, not to mention a toybag with several selections. And I’m not generally much into humiliation on either the giving or the receiving ends, so I haven’t ever experienced flogging as humiliation, even though I’ve been doing it for years.

I could say the same for knives and razors. Is there any particular reason why a cutting scene should be humiliating? Califia has written about cutting as a spiritual art; many people associate cutting with ritual, release, or even simply the creation of beautiful physical markings. How on earth is any of that about humiliation? I mean, sure, perhaps it might be humiliating for someone to be strapped down spread-eagled and have their pubes shaved off with a razor in front of an audience… so it’s not an inconceivable match. But it’s hardly a direct link either.

So while the researchers’ data is definitely interesting in terms of laying out the types of behaviours engaged in by gay men and straight men, and noting the differences between those two populations (example: straight men don’t fist-fuck as much as gay ones do), I can’t help but scratch my head as to the logic behind the researchers’ interpretation of that data. 

There is a happy piece to the study: the researchers asked questions about early childhood experiences of family interaction and of sexual abuse experienced by SM participants, and the conclusion they reached was:

“The distribution of different attachment styles in the present sample was almost identical to distributions obtained in previous studies with general adult samples using similar methods of measurement, indicating the comparability of this sample with non-sadomasochistic individuals. This again suggests that conclusions drawn from clinical case reports based on people who have sought psychological help cannot be generalized to the majority of men practicing SM-sex.”

How lovely that they put a little political bite at the end of their findings. Guess what? SMers aren’t all poorly socialized weirdos from dysfunctional families! Wow!  

They do say, later, that the prevalence of sexual abuse was higher among the SMers studied than among children in Finland at large, and give some somewhat alarming numbers – 7.9% of males compared to a 1-3% average, and 22.7% of females compared to a 6-8% average. However, there are two issues here: first of all, the female sample was incredibly small, so I would question whether the study’s number is significant in any way. Second, I’ve never actually heard of such low numbers in terms of child abuse among the general population. Most studies I’ve read cite much higher figures. I wonder if these ones are particular to the Finnish? I’m not exactly well placed to know, but I’d be curious.

The study’s conclusions are blessedly coherent, for the most part. Basically, the researchers indicate that there are differences in common SM practices between gay and straight guys, and point out that this has implications for the way we understand sadomasochism. However, they also point out that:

“When drawing conclusions regarding the differences between gay and straight sadomasochists found in the present study, it should be remembered that it cannot be totally determined if these are just differences between gay and straight individuals in general or if the sadomasochism plays a specific part. Indeed, a single behavior can seldom be classified unambiguously as sadomasochistic or not without knowing the context of the behavior and the interpretation the individuals engaging in the behavior give to it. (…) The same criticism applies to differences between gay and straight sadomasochistic subcultures as well as to family interaction.”

Considering the earlier weirdness, I am impressed that they put such a nuanced spin on the conclusions of their work. I think in some ways the logic also works the other way around, too; certainly, gay and straight people may engage in different behaviours, SM or otherwise. But also, gay and straight SM subcultures have a major influence over the way SM happens between the people who participate in them. In other words, it makes perfect sense to me that gay men do anal fisting play more than straight ones do; not because straight men don’t have assholes or like playing with assholes, but because fisting is definitely firmly rooted as a sexual practice in queer culture and it’s only just starting to bleed into the edges of hetero sexual practices. Culture influences people’s behaviours as much as people’s behaviours create and sustain culture. So you can’t take a culture and make set-in-stone associations about what that culture means about its participants. Luckily, the researchers know this:

“Our results suggest that a person’s sadomasochistic interest may be influenced by a number of factors. Individual sadomasochistic behavioral repertoire is also most certainly influenced by social and cultural features which may be one of the reasons why gay and straight respondents show different repertoires.”

In addition, the researchers showed a pretty strong understanding of queer politics. They were pretty thoughtful in positing that “hypermasculinity” could in part be a reaction against gay male stereotypes of effeminacy, for example – it still doesn’t say how catheters are hypermasculine, but I get the gist of it and it makes sense.

All in all, I really appreciate the openness that concludes the study:

“The lack of unity in the phenomenon of sadomasochism makes it easy to understand that no one description – let alone explanation – can suffice for it.”

It occurs to me that it’s very strange that a study whose working associations and definitions are so odd could still wind up coming to conclusions that are pretty well-considered. Curious indeed. But I’d rather critique and question than complain. Really, anything that proves we’re not mentally ill is a good thing in my books. 

One Response

  1. I’m with you on the problematic nature of their categorisations. There are a million interpretations of the zillions of possible acts that occur between people so how can any of those acts be lumped into one specific category? Strikes me as odd.

    For instance: humiliation. I’m big on humiliation – it’s one of my main interests in BDSM and I’m really not that turned on if there is no element of it in my play, whether giving or getting. However, from speaking to people either online or in person, it’s become obvious that some acts that I consider humiliating are not to them. There have been occasions where I have not played with people who liked the same acts because they were uncomfortable with the idea of humiliation. They simply enjoyed the act whereas I was seeking an element of humiliation. On the other hand, there have been people that I’ve played with that were into humiliation but whose methods of humiliation just didn’t do it for me, or vice versa.

    The hypermasculinity thing: I’m pretty baffled by the list of acts that fall into that category as well, in addition to being baffled at the identification of such a category. I’d be curious to know if they would juxtapose that category onto dyke SM play if they had a chance to observe or interview SM dykes. And why do they not have a category of hyperfemininity? Pretending for a moment that I were trapped in a heteronormative ideology, couldn’t I feasibly see being a receiver of fisting as a feminine act?

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